Food and Drink 

The mighty cranberry

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If there’s a berry that says “merry” this time of year it’s the tart and sassy cranberry.

For Canadians, this rich red berry is so tied to the Thanksgiving-through-Christmas holiday loop that I vote for the cranberry as all-round jolly holiday berry, definitely outstripping the holly berry which, in the gastronomical department, only delights wild birds.

Even their colour cycle — white when unripe and red when ripe —

makes cranberries ideal holiday berries.

Another reason to trumpet the cranberry: the Lower Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island make B.C. the number one producer of cranberries in Canada. Combined, the two regions grow about 840,000 barrels annually (one barrel weighs 100 pounds). Now that’s a lot of cranberry sauce.

However, worldwide the U.S. rules, with more than 80 per cent of cranberries coming from there, primarily Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Still, Canada ranks a respectable second, with Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec helping B.C. account for about 14 per cent of world production. The rest of commercial cranberry production comes from countries in Borat’s corner of the world: Latvia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and the Ukraine.

This pretty much aligns with cranberries’ original habitat. Commercial crops grown in North America are all variants of Vaccinium macrocarpon , a member of the heath family native to acidic bogs and peaty wetlands in the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. It’s also cousin to other low, evergreen creeping shrubs like the lingonberry and small cranberry ( V. oxycoccus ). The latter is the European cranberry, found in the likes of Latvia or Belarus with its stronger, grassier flavour.

Cranberries have been eaten by aboriginal people for ages. In fact, we newcomers to North America supposedly had our first taste when starving colonists in Massachusetts were given some by generous locals. After that they incorporated cranberries into Thanksgiving dinners and long threaded strings for the Christmas tree. (If you have a minute and a bag of fresh cranberries, get a big needle and some thread and try it — they’re a treat to make, mainly because the ripe, fresh berries are so beautiful to handle.)

In North America and Europe, cranberries have been wild-harvested for centuries. A gaggle of long-skirted women on their knees are featured in Eastman Johnson’s 1880s painting, “The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket.” That was before people figured out how to manage wild stands to increase yields. Eventually, this evolved into building ditches and dykes for water control, and amazing artificial bogs used in some places today.

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